A “Normal” Winter (Dreaming of Peas and Tomatoes)


Basket of tomatoes

Just came in from shoveling the snow again. I am running out of places to put it, and I have to keep reminding myself that this is more of a “normal” winter than we’ve seen in a few years in southeastern South Dakota. The abundant snowfall, which is attributable to a La Nina cycle (and so, in a sense, not “normal” at all), is a great boon to soil/groundwater moisture levels and also as an insulating factor for tender/fall planted vegetation from the frigid temperatures we’ve been seeing off and on throughout this winter.

But all this snow and cold makes it somewhat difficult to believe that in a little over a month, it’ll be spring planting time. Yep, that’s right–Spring Planting. I find it odd that most people in this area don’t even think about planting until late April or May, but my little pea-packs say, “plant as soon as the ground can be worked.” That’s the latter part of March in this southern paradise of the Dakotas.

When you figure it takes two months for pea plants to mature, you want to get them in early so your harvest time is extended. My mom always says the ideal is to plant peas on St. Patrick’s Day–but maybe that’s in Ireland–St. Patty’s tends to be about a week earlier than pea planting is feasible here (and two or three weeks earlier than feasible on the side of a mountain in Vermont, where my mom gardens).

I should say that I’ve been planting peas (and spinach) this early for years, and I have never had them killed by a late freeze or snow. It takes about ten or twelve days for peas plants to pop up above the surface (about enough time for me to get antsy and stick a trowel down to check on the seeds)–but even with the late freeze we had last year, the peas that had germinated did not sustain any damage from temps that hit the low 20s. The early arugula showed a little damage from that cold snap; the spinach was undeterred.

With the heirloom sugar snap peas I grow, hot temperatures in June can quickly lead to powdery mildew on the pea plants (this variety is fairly susceptible), and the plants start going downhill fast. In a “good” year, I can harvest peas up until (and sometimes through) July, but in a hotter-than-normal year, production drops significantly in mid-to-late June.

In a way, I don’t mind when the peas start to go downhill, because I generally will tuck my tomato transplants among the trellised pea vines as a natural shade to let the young tomatoes get acclimatized and also feast off the nitrogen fixed by the leguminous pea plants.

If it gets hot early, then the demise of the peas is the tomatoes’ boon–they take off in the warmth, and I cut back the pea vines and compost them to give the tomatoes more room. If it doesn’t warm up early, the peas keep producing and the tomatoes get a little protection from the elements and a little more nitrogen to help them take off when the conditions do get favorable.

But for now, the snow and the cold cannot be avoided. I’ve turned my back on the front window, but I can still see the reflection of my snow-covered truck in the computer screen.

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One response to this post.

  1. Hang in there, spring will be here soon! (I type these words of encouragement as much for myself as for you)
    I too have planted peas earlier than most, with no significant frost damage.

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